Stonyhurst Essay Society: Chetsterton – Eugenics and other Evils


I have always been attracted to Chesterton, partly by his politics, partly by his faith, and partly by his ability to use methods of mass communication to alert his audience to hugely important questions. I will argue this evening that he was also a great prophet who foresaw the evil of eugenics which has manifested itself in various forms during the 90 years since he first wrote about it.
First and foremost, G.K.Chesterton was a journalist of the Fleet Street tradition. He never made any claim to the ivory towers of academia but his intellect was deployed in ways which confounded many of his contemporaries. He was equally at home fashioning thunderbolts in the popular prints or debating the great moral issues. It was at the Oxford Union that one of those debating with him quipped that they felt caught between the devil and the GKC.
I believe that his conversion to Catholicism was as important as Cardinal Newman’s had been in the preceding century.
At one point, not long after Chesterton’s conversion some twelve thousand converts were joining the Church each year. Chesterton came to embody and personify this twentieth century movement. In 1935 he published The Well and Other Shallows, which included six essays entitled collectively My Six Conversions. Here he wryly observes that “At least six times during the last few years, I have found myself in a situation in which I should certainly have become a Catholic, if I had not been restrained from that rash step by the fortunate accident that I was one already.”
He continued: “I could not abandon the faith, without falling back on something more shallow than the faith. I could not cease to be a Catholic, except by becoming something more narrow than a Catholic. A man must narrow his mind in order to lose something of the universal philosophy; everything that has happened up to this day has confirmed this conviction; and whatever happens tomorrow will confirm it anew. We have come out of the shallows and the dry places to the deep well; and the Truth is at the bottom of it.”
Chesterton’s poem , “A Beaconsfield Ballad,” celebrated his love of the town where he lived for much of his life: “To us our town remains, to fling Wide as its roads and white, That all men may pronounce it good And some pronounce it right.”
Masie Ward, in Return To Chesterton, wrote of Beaconsfield: “We could almost draw a map of Beaconsfield by putting together the allusions in Gilbert’s verse and prose to the various “ends” of the town, to its pubs, its ponds and its tradesmen.”
When GKC died, on June 14th, 1936, his wife wrote that day to Fr.O’Connor – the old friend who had been the inspiration for the fictional Father Brown: “Our beloved Gilbert passed away this morning at 10.15 He was unconscious for some time but had received the Last sacraments and extreme Unction while he was still in possession of his understanding.”
On his memorial card appeared the words “The Lord became my protector and he brought me forth into a large place” (a joking reference to his girth). “He saved me because he was well pleased with me. I will love thee O Lord my strength. The Lord is my firmament and my refuge and my deliverer.” To the psalmist’s words were added Walter de la Mare’s tribute:
“Knight of the Holy Ghost, he goes his way wisdom his motley, truth his loving jest; The mills of Satan keep his lance in play, Pity and innocence his heart at rest.”
To these words might be added a stanza from Chesterton’s famous Ballad of the White Horse: “People if you have any prayers Say prayers for me: And lay me under a Christian stone In that lost land I call my own, To wait till the holy horn is blown, And all poor men are free.”
The mourners who came to Beaconsfield included Max Beerbohm, Eric Gill, D.B.Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Douglas Woodruff, Frank Sheed, Masie Ward, Dr.Hinsley, the Archbishop of Westminster, Monsignors Fulton.J.Sheen and Ronald Knox, Fr.Vincent McNabb and Hilaire Belloc. The latter was to be found weeping as he drank a pint of beer outside the Railway Hotel.
A requiem Mass held at Westminster Cathedral on June 27th drew a congregation of 2,000 people. A message of condolence was read from Pope Pius XI and the Mass was sung by Father O’Connor. Chesterton and Fr.O’Connor had regularly had long discussions, while walking over the moors from Keighley. Their conversations were subsequently adapted in the Father Brown stories, often taking the form of the paradox so beloved of Chesterton:
“How can his life be in the right, if his whole view of life is wrong? That’s a modern muddle….Heresy always does affect morality, if it’s heretical enough. I suppose a man may honestly believe that thieving isn’t wrong. But what is the good of saying that he honestly believes in dishonesty?” (Fr.Brown in The Crime of the Communist 1935, reprinted by Penguin Books in 1987).
But Chesterton should be evaluated against a richer tapestry than the Fr.Brown stories. When many others were blind Chesterton stood at the gates of the twentieth century and saw where it was heading . In Chesterton we have the twentieth century’s prophet of life and the most trenchant early opponent of eugenics..
He saw, when others didn’t, how industrialisation was sapping the human spirit; he saw, when others didn’t, what happens when, through unfair distribution, people are dispossessed from their land and property; he saw, when other s didn’t, the profound dangers to democracy of state socialism, anarchism and unchecked monopoly capitalism; he saw, when others didn’t what happens when a society is secularised and orthodox Christianity jettisoned; and he saw, when others didn’t, the sinister and corrupting nature of eugenics and racial theories. Above all, Chesterton reminds us of what has been lost. Lost through the proclamation of eugenics, lost through the destruction of ‘Merrie England’ lost through our enslavement to capitalism, lost through the hermaphrodisation of women, and lost through the emasculation of the Catholic heritage and Catholic teaching.
In 1906 he wrote that “the earnest Freethinkers need not worry themselves so much about the persecutions of the past. Before the Liberal idea is dead or triumphant, we shall see wars and persecutions the like of which the world has never seen.” He foresaw with deadly accuracy what he called “the coming peril.” It would be “vast and vague” and “capitalism and collectivism are only economic by-products.”
The century was at its dawn when Chesterton identified these falling shadows. With the century’s setting sun we can now catalogue some of its terrifying infamies: the blood shed of more Christian martyrs than in all the centuries which preceded I; the evils of the holocaust, fascist and socialist totalitarianism; the corrupting of medical ethics and the consequential destruction of life on an unprecedented scale. Chesterton, rather than Shaw, Wells or the Webbs , saw the apocalypse towards which the century was heading..
In 1908 he put these words into the mouth of one of his anarchists crafted so well in The Man Who Was Thursday. In this, my favourite work of Chestertonian fiction, the anarchist proclaims that once government has been abolished they have an even bolder aim: To abolish God!….We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all these arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right And Wrong.”
The subtitle of The Man Who Was Thursday is A Nightmare. Could there be any better description of the twentieth century? The abolition of God inevitably leads to the abolition of the man made in his image and Chesterton saw all this with clarity.
Joseph Pearce, in his biography of JRR Tolkien (Man And Myth, 1999) links Tolkien’s hobbits and the struggle in Lord of The Rings to Chesterton’s Merrie England, his rustic radicalism, his love of tradition and traditionalism, and his appreciation of how evil is omnipresent and is our everlasting foe. Tolkien’s faith was shared by Chesterton while Tolkien’s Shire would have been a happy home for the Distributists, Chesterton and Belloc, while the Lonely Mountain of The Hobbit and the later jousts with the forces controlled by Mordor would have been familiar foes for Chesterton.
The last book Chesterton published before converting to Catholicism was Eugenics and Other Evils (1923). Here he states that “Materialism is really our established Church” and he exposes the inevitable consequences of Darwinianism and the survival of the fittest: “the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics.”
Chesterton’s vigorous opposition to eugenics is often overlooked while we are intrigued by Distributism, engaged by his apologetics, or entertained by Fr.Brown.
In 1912 the then Liberal Government brought forward its Mental Deficiency Bill. Perhaps it was a combination of this, the Marconi Scandal, Chesterton’s subsequent dismissal from The Daily News and the Government’s betrayal of the poor (What’s Wrong with the World, 1910)which led him to reassess his Liberal politics and his religious beliefs..
The Committee to further the mental Deficiency Bill was headed by the two Anglican primates, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Among the supporting cast was Chesterton’s bete noire, the Dean of St.Paul’s, Dr.William Inge. In an essay entitled Eugenics (1917) Inge contrasted the Eton and Oxbridge educated males of his family with the “birth-rate of the feeble minded which is quite 50% higher than that of normal persons.”
The view of many bishops was summed up in the Galton Lecture by another of Chesterton’s adversaries, Bishop Barnes of Birmingham. Published in The Eugenics Review, the lecture was named for Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and principal advocate of selective breeding. The idea that every individual was made in the image of God and of equal worth before their Creator was an anathema for Barnes, who believed that:
“Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society.” He added that by “preventing the survival of the socially unfit” Christians “are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road.” Chesterton saw where this evil would lead:
“It is not only openly said, it is eagerly urged, that the main aim of the measure (the Mental Deficiency Bill) is to prevent any person whom these propagandists do not happen to think intelligent from having any wife or children. Every tramp who is sulky, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs. That is the situation; that is the point. (Eugenics & Other Evils, p 20).
Eugenics was never a science of great precision. Galton simply identified two main categories – “the feeble-minded” and “degenerates” who would be incarcerated in asylums for life or forcibly sterilised. Eugenics, said Galton “is the science of improving stock…to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”
In an essay, The Fallacy of Eugenics, published in Avowals and Denials (1934), Chesterton said that “we betray our own feeble-mindedness by calling them Unfit.. For the very word Unfit reveals the weakness of the whole of this pseudo-scientific position. We should say that a cow is fit to provide us with milk; or that a pig is unfit to provide us with anything but pork. But nobody would call a cow fit without naturally adding what she was fit for. Nobody would call up the insanely isolated vision of the Unfit Pig in the abstract. But when we talk about human beings, we are bound to break of the sentence in the middle; we are bound to call them Unfit in the abstract. For we know how varied, how complex, and how controversial are the questions that arise about the functions for which they should be fitted.”
Chesterton identified the landless poor, incapable of sustaining themselves, as the logical next targets for the eugenicists. In mobilising public and political opinion against eugenics Chesterton stood against a rising tide.
The first issue of the Eugenics Review (April 1909) emphasized that the social legislation of the day was “penalising the fit for the sake of the unfit.” Six years earlier H.G.Wells argued that “If we could prevent or discourage the inferior sort of people from having children, and encourage the superior sorts to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race” (Mankind in The Making, 1903).
In 1912 over 750 delegates attended the first International Eugenics Conference, staged in London. Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister was there, so was the Liberal Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.. Five years earlier those scions of the radical Left, the Webbs, published a Fabian tract warning that “children are being born freely to Irish Roman Catholics and the Polish, Russian and German Jews, the thriftless and irresponsible…This can hardly result in anything but national deterioration…or this country falling to the Irish and the Jews.” (Tract 131, 1907).
This was nothing new. One hundred years earlier, Malthus, in a widely quoted comment to Ricardo, had urged the depopulation of Ireland: “…the land of Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.” During the Irish famine which followed the British Government had a calculated policy of non intervention. Eight million people were reduced to four million. Three million emigrated and one million died.
Ever since Malthus predicted demographic disaster two centuries ago the hand wringers have been proved consistently wrong. Today, on average, people are better fed, with a higher life expectancy than ever before. Tackling poverty and cultivating prosperity has proved a more effective means of curbing exponential population growth than any Malthusian remedy. In 1803 Malthus had argued for coercive legislation targeted at poor families who reproduced. One hundred and ten years later Churchill told Asquith that “the multiplication of the feeble-minded” could not go on unchecked and he argued for compulsory sterilisation rather than the more expensive option of incarceration.
Fortunately, Churchill was moved on to the Admiralty and after Chesterton’s campaign and through the efforts of Josiah Wedgewood, the Independent MP, Parliament, in 1913, abandoned coercion. Chesterton rejoiced in his triumph but warned that despite “the stench” of the defeated Bill men’s memories were short: “these dazed dupes will gather again together and attempt to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes.”
Beyond our English shores the eugenic forces quickly regrouped and, without a Chesterton to oppose them, they were far more successful. In what Chesterton called “the curious commonwealth of Mr.Hitler” eugenics laws were passed in 1933 and by 1939 250,000 so-called “degenerates” had been sterilised, over half of whom were categorised as “feeble minded.” By 1939 euthanasia had been introduced for all severely disabled or mentally ill people. The way had been paved for Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen. To what else could such a monstrous ideology lead?
Under the influence of Hegel, Nietzsche had dreamed of a higher sort of man. He claimed that Christianity, with its upholding of the weak – and erroneous belief in meekness, forgiveness or mercy – had constantly sought to undermine the creation of this perfect humanity. Hitler echoed this belief in his remark that Christianity, “taken to its logical extreme, would mean the systematic cultivation of human failure.” As for conscience, Hitler dismissed it as “a Jewish invention, a blemish like circumcision.” Chesterton saw this ideology for what it was. He knew that the idea of destroying a life which has lost its social usefulness springs from weakness, not from strength; that the right to life is entirely divorced from questions of social utility. Chesterton knew that what was truly feeble-minded was to base ethical decisions on something as vacuous as personal choice: “To admire mere choice, is to refuse to choose, he wrote (Orthodoxy).
He well understood that the defeat of a parliamentary Bill by no means ended the argument. Chesterton foresaw that the dazed dupes would gather again and these questions would be argued over from one generation to the next . In Eugenics And Other Evils he reflected that evil always wins through the stupidity of those it has duped – and that many of its adherents “intentions are entirely innocent and humane.”
Eighty year later, domestic eugenics is packaged with all the decorum which modern public relations can muster. Baroness Warnock in her “An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Ethics” (1998) wrote that “Unless it is held that all life is sacred” in one of the senses considered already, one must conclude that life itself is not intrinsically valuable. Its value depends on what it is like, its quality. Marie Stopes, one of the great luminaries of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (whose offices housed the Eugenics Society rent free), put it more directly still: No society should allow the diseased, the racially negligent, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of warped and inferior infants.
This agenda has led to 40 million abortions world wide annually; In China it has led to the one-child policy and in one year to 21 million sterilisations, the insertion of 18 million IUDs and 14 million abortions. In Britain it has led to 6 million abortions, the ending of one in five pregnancies; to between 300,000 and half a million human embryos being destroyed or experimented upon; to abortion up to birth on a disabled baby; to new laws permitting the creation and then destruction of human embryos for the purpose of human cloning; and attempts to introduce Dutch-style euthanasia laws..
Academics at prestigious institutions like the Nuffield Council go unchallenged when they announce that “species boundaries are not inviolable” and pave the way for scientists to dabble in the grotesque. The nightmare kingdoms of twentieth century eugenics give the state planners undreamed of and unparalleled power. Genetic tests claiming to reveal instability, illness, homosexuality or a low IQ all pave the way for eugenic abortions. Quality controls and perfection tests will see the emergence of a genetic underclass of the uninsurable, the unbreedable, the unwanted and the unmanned. In the caste system to come suitors, partners and predators will be encouraged to eye your genes with envy or contempt. We will become prisoners of heredity and slaves of a manipulated reproductive system. British birthright will be replaced by the right birth.
Eugenics leads to the suppression of variation and difference. From laws which create a genetic database for the whole population, it is only a small step to laws requiring the data to be lodged with the State, and to compulsion and the elimination of undesirables.
As the recent House of Lords debate on human cloning revealed, modern eugenics and the philosophy which under girds it is entrenched in the thinking of the political, and medical establishment. Official committees require just one qualification ” that those appointed are all of one mind? Baroness Warnock illustrated the daners of liberal totalitarianism when she explained the composition of her embryology Committee. She said: “There was one particular person who was supposed to be the Catholic and I said I would not have him. I just knew that I couldn’t work with him.” We might have an inkling of what Chesterton would have made of Lady Warnock and her committee from something he said in The Man Who Was Thursday: ” The dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them.”
Chesterton also observed that “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without conviction.” In becoming too tolerant of modern eugenics perhaps we have taken to hiding in the clothes of a false tolerance and false liberalism.. Chesterton would instantly recognise our corrupted political system. Writing after the Marconi Scandal he said: “A Parliamentary Commission was appointed and reported that everything was very nice; a Minority Report was issued which reported that some things were not quite so nice; and political life (if you call it life) went on as before.” (Autobiography: The Case Against Corruption). Nothing much has changed.
Just before his death, in 1936, he said he had discovered that” in all that welter of inconsistent and incompatible heresies, the one and only really unpardonable heresy was orthodoxy…It was not until long afterwards that the full horror of the truth burst upon them; the disgraceful truth that I really though the thing (the Christian Creed) was true.” And who is the purveyor of that truth? In the last pages of his posthumously published Autobiography (1937), in a chapter entitled The God With The Golden Key, he described the source of his authority:
“From the very beginning, my instinct about justice, about liberty and equality, was somewhat different from that current in our age…it was my instinct to defend liberty in small nations and poor families…I did not really understand what I meant by Liberty until I heard it called by the new name of Human Dignity. it was a new name to me though it was part of a creed nearly two thousand years old. “…Already there hover on the horizon sweeping scourges of sterilisation or social hygiene, applied to everybody and imposed by nobody. At least I will not argue here with what are quaintly called the scientific authorities on the other side. I have found one authority on my side… “…And there starts up again before me, standing sharp and clear in shape as of old, the figure of a man who crosses a bridge and carries a key; as I saw him when I first looked into fairyland through the window of my father’s peepshow. But I know that he who is called Pontifex, the Builder of the Bridge, is also called Claviger, the Bearer of the Key; and that such keys were given him to bind and loose when he was a poor fisher in a far province, beside a small and almost secret sea.”
In an age of compromise, clubability and consensus; in an age befuddled by the language of political correctness; in an era which holds that truth is what you want it to be and authority something to be despised, here is a prophetic voice penetrating the insanity of our times.
Chesterton said of his hero, William Cobbett, that “he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there.” In so clearly describing the nature of eugenics and its consequences Chesterton was also aptly describing himself.
By The Babe Unborn (1897, Collected Works, vol II).
If trees were tall and grasses short As in some crazy tale, If here and there a sea were blue Beyond the breaking pale,
If a fixed fire hung in the air To warm me one day through If deep green hair grew on great hills, I know what I should do
In dark I lie: dreaming that there Are great eyes cold or kind, And twisted sheets and silent doors, And living men behind.
Let storm clouds come: better an hour, And leave to weep and fight, Than all the ages I have ruled The empires of the night.
I think that if they gave me leave Within the world to stand I would be good through all the day I spent in fairyland
They should not hear a word from me Of selfishness or scorn If only I could find the door If only I were born.